Few things are more frustrating than when a valued member of your Route Service team winds up spending time on the bench due to injury. It’s hard on you, and it’s hard on them. Just as important, it can put you in an uncomfortable situation with the customers on the route.
Musculoskeletal disorders are the leading cause of route reps’ lost time or days away from work. However, not all body parts are created equal. The most common areas of the body RSRs injure are the lower back, shoulders and ankles. For context, the average cost of a back injury alone can result in a workers’ comp claim of between $40,000 and $80,000 per employee. This includes:
- Musculoskeletal injuries
- Turnover (cost to hire and train replacements)
- Overtime and temporary help
- Days away from work
- Transition duty days
- Sick days
- Administrative costs of handling claim
And this list doesn’t even take into account costs such as reduced employee satisfaction and system efficiency. For these reasons, it is difficult to understate the importance of safety on the job for Route Service Representatives.
How can you save money while reducing the number of days your RSRs miss at work? One surprising, yet obvious, solution would be to improve the safety of your RSRs. To assist in preventing injuries and improving safety, we recommend starting with the following 10 steps:
- Encourage Your RSRs to Stretch. This sounds simple enough, but you and your team probably don’t realize the advantages and benefits of stretching. After all, it’s a long day. Stretching has been proven to prevent injuries, enhance performance, improve circulation and range of motion, decrease muscle tension and soreness and increase muscle-tendon flexibility.
As if those benefits are not enough, stretching also improves your ability to relax, increases the amount of oxygen in the blood, warms up the muscles and even enhances a person’s overall well-being.
For all these reasons, RSRs should be trained and encouraged to stretch throughout the day, especially before engaging in any manual work and after long drive times or lunch breaks. They should also be reminded to stretch anytime they feel stiff and after performing heavy workloads. What about the slackers? If you have to, send them a Gumby figure as a reminder.
- Improve Nutrition and Hydration. RSRs spend a majority of their days in and around a truck, so it’s easy just to grab food on-the-go. Eating healthy by avoiding greasy, processed and trans fat foods and maintaining a healthy body weight reduces additional stress on bones and muscles. Remind your RSRs to avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and minimize sugar intake. Eating lots of fiber and high-energy foods such as vegetables, nuts and beans have enormous health benefits as well.
Dehydration is another health risk factor. It is easy to forget to hydrate when you are constantly on-the-go. Thirst is an indicator of fluid deficiency; and it is important to stay well hydrated, since by the time you feel thirsty, you are already on the way to dehydration. When you don’t put enough water in your body, the inevitable results are tiredness, low energy and headaches. RSRs should consume roughly three liters of fluids a day to remain properly hydrated. Helpful tip: chilled drinks are absorbed faster and help reduce body temperature on hot days. Now that we’ve tackled diet and exercise, the rest should be a piece of cake. Get it?
- Work-Rest Cycle. There is never a perfect work-life balance, but one way to improve function in all areas of life is to remember that sleep is an essential and vital part of our lives. Sleep is a natural restorative cycle that allows the body to regenerate itself so that it can function properly. The average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night. This is especially important for RSRs, who need to be well rested in order to perform manual labor and be alert to drive and interact with customers. And it’s better for the career than, say, sleeping through the team meeting, right?
- Appropriate Footwear. It’s easy to just grab the closest pair of tennis shoes when leaving for the day. However, RSRs really should take the time to make sure they have proper, supportive footwear. Choosing the right shoes can minimize stress on joints and the spine, and making sure shoes are in good condition can also prevent slips, trips and falls. In this line of work, generally conducted at the backend of a business, slip-resistant shoes are always a good idea. In other words, it’s time to lose the worn-out Chucks.
- Plan Your Route. Remind RSRs to always choose the safest and most efficient routes when walking to their destinations. If possible, avoid stairs and other areas that provide poor footing or obstacles. Reps should be trained to rest if necessary when carrying a load over a long distance. It is also important to evaluate a load before lifting—if it is too large or heavy, it should not be attempted. Sometimes RSRs need a reminder that is better to swallow their pride than face a back injury. Leave the inner power lifter at the gym where he belongs.
- Use Material Handling Devices. If a load is too heavy, remind RSRs to use a cart, rolling rack or hand truck. Other options include making more trips with smaller loads or asking for someone’s assistance. When possible, remember to push rather than pull an object to reduce strain on the back. Remember that red wagon you had as a kid? It was trying to tell you something.
- Eyes on the Path. It may go without saying, but it is easy to get distracted when carrying a load. RSRs should continually look where they are going and evaluate the route to ensure that there are no obstacles in their path. They should watch out for curbs, holes, ice, water and other tripping or slipping hazards. It’s really hard to impress a customer when you’re picking yourself up off the pavement.
- Proper Lifting. RSRs have to do a lot of lifting, and it is important they are properly trained in order to avoid injuries. Teach your reps to:
- Face the object they are about to lift and, if possible, face the direction they want to go. Make sure the load is stable and balanced and get a firm base of support. A staggered stance, with one foot slightly behind the other, often aids in providing a firm base of support.
- When lifting, be sure to bend at the knees, not the waist. Bend down as far as necessary using your legs and not your back. Lean into the object and let your body weight and leg muscles do the work.
- Keep the load close to your body with your head up and maintain the natural inward curve of your lower back. Stand up straight and carry the load as close to your center of gravity as possible. Allow your more powerful leg muscles, not your back muscles, to do the work.
- Back injuries don’t only happen from improper lifting technique. They can result from lowering the load incorrectly. You should lower the load slowly by flexing the knees and hips and after releasing the load, straighten up using your legs.
- Don’t twist your body while carrying a load. Instead, turn your entire body by pivoting or moving your feet.
- Repeating the above beats recuperating on the couch.
- Maintain Three Points of Contact. “Three points of contact” means always having three parts of your body on stable surfaces. This typically involves having both feet on the ground and one hand holding on to a third point of contact, such as a rail or handle. It provides a firm base of support and helps avoid accidents such as slips, trips or falls. Three points of contact also reduces impact and stress on the body by as much as 55%! Using this technique throughout the day is a good rule of thumb for home, work and in the truck. And it’s definitely better than having the point of contact be your rear end.
- Be Ambidextrous. Our bodies are symmetrical, but we choose to have a dominant arm, leg, etc. To reduce wear-and-tear on your wrists, elbows and shoulders, practice alternating arms. It may seem counterintuitive; but if RSRs use their bodies more evenly, it can help improve safety and reduce their risk of injury. Besides, it’s not nice to play favorites.
Of course, no program will ever totally eliminate accidents, but rigorous attention to these basics can prevent unnecessary injuries. Most importantly, any accident that results in injury or lost time, and even near-misses, should be thoroughly investigated. This involves filing an accident report, interviewing the people involved and even, on occasion, re-enacting the occurrence. Only by getting to the “how” of each accident will you get to the “why” the accident actually occurred. And figuring out why is your best strategy for avoiding a similar injury in the future through training and communication.
Working smarter, not harder is everyone’s business and everyone’s responsibility. Train your Route Service Representatives on these 10 steps to lower the number of work injuries, reduce lost time expenses and see an increase in employee morale and a healthier team.
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